“There began to be wisps of mist along the ground”: The Excellence of Leigh Brackett’s Prose

Whenever I hit a rut in my writing and need to be reminded why I am at the keyboard, I pull out one or another story or novel by Leigh Brackett to get me back on track, to remind me why I wanted to learn how to tell stories in the first place:

Jim Beckworth, on Old Raven’s buffalo horse, fired and reloaded until his arm was tired from pushing the ramrod home. The frenzy cooled. The survivors of the herd streamed away across the plain. Rich came up beside Jim. He was grinning, his long hair flying, his eyes wild and bright. “We made ’em come,” he said. “Wagh! We made ’em come!” He and Jim rode with the braves, yelping their triumph.

That’s from early in Follow the Free Wind, her 1963 Western novel. We are there. We are there, when we read this scene or any scene in one of Miss Brackett’s stories, and in a fashion that I, at least, find unique to her kind of word work. We get the most concise information we need for a character. Descriptions pull us in as though we are a camera eye. This is because Brackett nailed down how to manage her craft by writing screenplays.

I can’t think of a more exacting or demanding method of getting a story across with the absolute minimal amount of verbiage than a screenplay, but Miss Brackett had it mastered. She is, after all, the scripter that Howard Hawks kept on set so that she could rework dialogue with him while he was directing.

So look at what Brackett does with that paragraph. The short sentences are shots. Paragraphs and pages are scenes. She is guiding us with a camera eye over the plains, cutting to a character, pulling back to pan across the moving herd, coming in for a close-up of an excited mountain man.

Even in giving us exposition, Miss Brackett provides backstory with that precisely detailed camera eye that drops us right in the middle of where she is taking us:

They were about to cross the Platte and head south to the Arkansas where they wintered, and they had nothing in the line of food or horses to spare. But their cousins the Skidi, the Pawnee Loups, they said, had a permanent town at the Forks of the Plains where they wintered, and it might be that Tirawa had smiled more brightly upon them. So the General marched on westward, praying. And then, incredible as a vision of paradise, there were the big earth lodges, warm and dry, and steaming pots of food, and nothing to do but eat and sleep, hunt, and bargain for buffalo robes and new moccasins.

As efficient and succinct as this writing is, Brackett always allows herself just enough space to bring in the poetry, as in that paragraph, also from Follow the Free Wind, as well as with the title of this blog, which is taken from a line in her short story “The Shadows,” first published in the February 1952 issue of Startling Stories:

     Barrier walked ahead, going with a lanky noiseless stride like an Indian. His eyes were anxious, and his nerves on edge.

It was very lovely in the forest, with the blooms of many colors nodding overhead. Barrier thought of a garden at the bottom of the sea. The glades were full of blueness like still water. There began to be wisps of mist along the ground.

That last line is perfect, and here’s why. Brackett doesn’t say “Mist crawled along the ground” or “A mist began to rise” or “There was a mist on the ground.” She says, “There began to be,” with that expletive “There” initially holding us back, and the alliteration and the cadence of the stressed and unstressed syllables, and then “wisps of mist,” with the repetition of the short vowel sound but with the consonants slowing us down so that we are reading at the same speed that the wisps are moving, then ending with “along the ground,” guh-guh-duh, like an incantation coming to a rock hard conclusion: “There began to be…wisps…of mist…along the ground.” And the wisps are just beginning, in the same way that the claustrophobic adventure the characters find themselves in is just beginning. They are a team of earth or Terran explorers on some new planet; they have found the ruins of a lost civilization, and in a moment, they will become uncomfortably aware that shadows, moving shadows, independently alive shadows, are following them and closing in around them. And there began to be wisps of mist….

Then there is the dialogue. Brackett is renowned for the hard-boiled edge of her writing. True, that aspect of her prose is what gives her lines their electric crackle and snap. But she understands drama. The peppy back and forth of hardcore streetspeak is just the beginning for Brackett because she brings out character through her dialogue the way professional screenwriters do. This is from The Coming of the Terrans (1967):

     Dying star, and dying world, alone on the edge of nothing. Trehearne looked at it. “What do they do there?”
“Nothing. They just wait.”
“For what?”
He knew the answer before she told him. No more ships, no more voyaging, nothing to look forward to but the only release there was. Trehearne drew back from the viewer. Shairn smiled.
“I’m on your side.”
“Are you? Or are you just using me to punish Kerrel, because he bores you?”
“Don’t you trust me?”
“But there isn’t much you can do about it, is there?”
“I guess not.”
“Then you might as well as make the best of it.”

Crackle. Snap. And “nothing to look forward to but the only release there was.” Ouch. Grim.

It is the judicious minimalism of her writing that really gets to me. Brackett pulls us in; she requires us to collaborate with her in her storytelling, just as she expected everyone involved with filming one of her screenplays to become involved in making the picture. There’s a great interview with Brackett in Films in Review for August-September 1976 in which she talks about the workmanlike aspect of crafting stories. This would been published during the time that I knew her and Edmond Hamilton—he died the following February—and I recall mentioning the Films in Review article to her, but if she said much about it, I don’t remember her comment, damn it.

In any event, I paraphrase because I don’t have my copy at hand, but one of the points she made was that, prior to crafting screenplays, she would start a story and get up a head of steam and go for it, and the story either worked or it didn’t. Once she began writing scripts, though, she had a clearer sense of fashioning a story, of fitting all of the pieces together.

I like that revelation about her professionalism because the more I’ve relied on what I know about filmmaking and the modern, cinematic form of storytelling, the surer I feel I have gotten with my own writing.

So I turn to Miss Brackett’s stories to remind myself just how much sheer fun and enjoyment we can have in crafting our yarns. She’s not a polemicist or a writer living indoors, looking into a mirror and talking back to herself, as so many of our contemporary literary writers are. I understand that that is their shtick, but she comes from a different school entirely. Writing for Leigh Brackett is not therapy or exhibitionism or oversharing; it is storytelling. She trusts us to understand that. And her enthusiasm comes through in her writing. It is professionalism of a very high order, and she’s having a ball telling these stories, using all of the tools in her tool chest, and we can tell that as we read her prose. We’re in very good hands from sentence one on.

Which brings to mind something else. I tend to think of writers — or their work, at least — as being warm or cool. Miss Brackett’s contemporaries Ray Bradbury and Charles Beaumont I think of as warm; another contemporary, Richard Matheson, is cool. (I can go back to Tolstoy, who I feel is warm, compared with Chekhov, who is very cool.) Brackett is cool; her stories are strong and solidly planted, waste no words, and pull us in like a movie does, showing us, not telling us, welcoming us to come by the fire (if I may mix my metaphors) and sit and be included and listen.

So her stories are cool. Still, regarding the woman herself…I don’t think I have ever seen a photograph of Leigh Brackett in which she isn’t smiling, or at least grinning, or at least has one little corner of her mouth turned up. She seems to me always to have been enjoying the trip. Smiling while she had fun the whole time she gave us these stories, this poetry, these shots, these scenes — all of this exemplary prose.

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